On War #320: Beware Charybdis!

William S. Lind
2 November 2009

My recent trip to the Baltic included a week with the Royal Swedish Navy and the Swedish Marines, the First Amphibious Regiment. The hospitality of both surpassed anything I could have expected, including a chance to conn one of the superb Class 90 patrol craft through the skerries. At 40 knots the boat rode like a Pullman car but also turned like a Fokker DR-1. Any navy interested in controlling green or brown water would be wise to take a look at the Class 90.

As my hosts stressed to me, the Swedish armed forces have a strong Third Generation heritage. Historically they had close ties with the German military. While Swedish armies often fought in Germany, Sweden never went to war against Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II was an honorary admiral in the Royal Swedish Navy.

But Swedish officers also told me that their Third Generation heritage is under threat. In part the danger is inherent in any military. In peacetime, the drill field comes to predominate over the battlefield. Techniques, which are done by formula and can therefore seemingly be evaluated “objectively,” become the focus of training. Tactics, which should never be schematic and can only be analyzed subjectively, receive less and less training time until they are subsumed in techniques. In consequence, the Third Generation is reduced to maneuver warfare buzzwords while the culture is lost. This happened more than once even in the Prussian/German army. The best counter to it is lots of free-play training.

But the Swedish Third Generation heritage faces another threat: us. Sweden is working more with NATO and the U.S. than it did in the past, and in each combined operation the Swedes are forced to conform to the Second Generation American model (which is also the NATO model). Gradually, that model is taking over, because it is the standard expected of everyone who works with the Americans. That is true all over the world. The great sucking sound heard by anyone who cooperates with the Americans or NATO comes from the drain that leads ever downwards, back into the Second Generation.

It is easy to counsel, Beware! But what can Third Generation armed services actually do to avoid this Charybdis? My advice to the Swedes and others who face the same danger is to learn how to operate the way the Second Generation demands, but laugh at it while you do it.

There is precedent for this. The Germans knew they could not operate with many of their allies the way they did at home. General Liman von Sanders did not imagine the Ottoman army could employ Auftragstaktik, nor did von Manstein expect it from the Romanians (nor anyone from the Italians). They adapted locally, but among themselves they kept their own superior tradition.

This is made all the easier by the fact that it is mostly staffs that must adopt the Second Generation when operating with NATO or the Americans. Swedish combat units can continue to operate as the Third Generation suggests, both tactically and culturally, while the staffs run interference for them. Staff officers can know both generations, and understand that they are slumming when they have to work with people who cannot do maneuver warfare. Again, some humor helps; just think of the Americans as today’s Ottomans. You can work with them without becoming them.

It is of course a pity that the U.S. armed forces are the Typhoid Mary of military models. Like that deadly Irish girl, we present an attractive appearance. Our vast resources and fancy gear overawe other countries and lead them to want to copy us. Regrettably, like Typhoid fever, the Second Generation culture embodied in the U.S. military is a fatal disease. It leaves its victims helpless against Third or Fourth Generation opponents.

As Americans, our seemingly hopeless task remains dragging the U.S. military out of the Second Generation mire it finds so comfortable. Swedes and others who have moved beyond us have the easier job of avoiding retrogression. Just being aware of the danger does much to avoid it. What good sailor, knowing the location of a whirlpool, sails into it? From what I saw, the Royal Swedish Navy has very good sailors.

A personal note: I spent much of my youth building models of 18th century Swedish warships. The models were scratch-built, not from kits, and they sailed. My visit with the Royal Swedish Navy allowed me to close a circle that dates back 50 years. Thank you, Sweden!

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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